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A walk in the woods

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Daniel Rubin was taking his dog Harley for a short morning walk. You know the kind. Hurry up and do your business … It’s cold … Gotta get to work. But — as will happen when new dog meets freshly fallen snow — the short walk turned into a long walk, an acquaintance turned into a friend, and, more important for Dan, taking the time to go down a new path or two turned into a column. Here’s what he posted on his Facebook page, which he later condensed into a column, which appears in today’s Inquirer.

Harley’s first step out the door is up — straight up — all 100-or-so loping, furry, orsine pounds of Bouvier twisting, leaping, soaring into the air. He looks back, wild-eyed and grinning.

To be a dog in the snow.

The idea was to walk him long enough so he could do his thing, then I could excavate the car and drive into town, where bad roads and deadline awaited.

But everytime this dog sees a blanket of snow, he’s seeing it for the first time. I’m not sure how bright he is. But he does know how to live.

We took the middle of the road, usually a whoosh of morning traffic, but there were no cars, no sound. There were no sidewalks yet either at 7 o’clock, just slight furrows in the virgin snow.

In the next block a lone figure shoveled the deep, airy powder. He was pink-faced and wore a beret, a field jacket, sweats and Wellies.

“Nice day for a walk,” he said, happily stopping for a moment.

Harley woofed him, but the man stood still, and let the dog get used to him.

My neighbor is Bill Daley, the potter. He’s 84, a twinkling, down-to-earth Irishman with a welcoming boom of a voice. But this is a new dog for us, a rescue, and he and Bill haven’t come to an arrangement yet, so I usually steer wide on our walks, and I’ve missed the time Bill and I used to spend together.

As Harley kept woofing, Bill started in with a typically exotic tale — how a famous mudman from Japan came by to visit him in his home-studio the day before, and the two dragged around the city all day looking at art.

Bill looked at Harley, who was investigating the recently abandoned house on the corner, tracing the perimeter, sniffing, leaving his mark on the bushes.

“Can we walk in the woods?” Bill asked. “I’d like to see what he’s like in the woods.”

Bill dropped his shovel, leaving it in the middle of the sidewalk.

The column would have to wait.

The three of us set out, down Mill Road, across a bridge that spanned the Tookany, which got Bill talking about delivering newspapers in the early morning when he was a boy along the Hudson River.

“When the light wasn’t hitting the water, the river was the color of lead,” he said.

The snow was so light that the slightest breeze shook the powder from the trees. Backlit by the strengthening sun, the clouds looked to be mother-of-pearl.

Bill was off on another story, about how his daughter once cared for a horse, and it took a while for me to realize that the story took place where we were now standing.

This happened in the late ‘60s, when his daughter was 14. And the field wasn’t carved up into a series of ballfields, each with its own chain-linked fence and advertisements for local sponsors. It was wide open, and she could trace the edge of the water on horseback and cross under New 2nd Street, and hit Tookany Creek Parkway, as if she was flying down the stretch at Churchill Downs.

“She had to spend all her baby-sitting money feeding that horse,” Bill remembered.

We’d been gone about a half hour. The dog was running mad circles around us, taking the lead out to its full 25 feet and whipping around and around, back arched, legs thrust, bucking, eying us, howling, happy.

“Have some more time?” Bill asked.

The snow was a half foot deep, the first honest snow we’ve had this season. “We used to get about two of these a year,” he said. “I miss snows like this.”

I don’t know what hit him next, but suddenly he collapsed onto the snow, face down, totally still. He looked back at me. He wanted to see what the dog would do.

Harley sniffed around, poked Bills legs. Bill started making little mewing noises. He was alive. Harley went in for the kiss.

Bill wanted to make one more stop. The creek bent around to the left. We could cut through the brush and walk to the water’s edge if we wanted. Harley led, part snow blower, part bush wacker.

We ducked branches, tromping through God knows what, making our way down to the water. The three of us were completely sugar coated. The sun was gaining in the sky. Some snow had shivered down the back of my boots. We’d been out an hour and a half. Indeed, the water looked like lead.

“Bill, I’ve got to get going,” I said.

“Next time it snows and you’re taking you dog for a walk, come get me?” he asked.

I have a new friend on my street. He’s about to be 84. And he makes me feel like a kid in the snow.


Comment from joshlerp
Time February 7, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Danny, Great article on your 3rd child, Harley! Kim found the piece while looking for pictures of her “Labradoodle” Neddi, on the internet. Hope Harley has the good sense to “come in, out of the cold!”